Thursday on oak

You could look down through the railings into scattered pits of darkness and light. Booths growing out of sensuous leather seats, sparingly lit by sconces that hovered low to the tables, highlighting here and there a hand, or the plans down one side of a person’s face, throwing the rest into dark relief. Eyes and mouths glittered – each in their own way.

I was on the stairs between worlds, the pits below and the pits above. Music drowned out feeling amongs these people I hardly knew.

They had shed the office and now leaned close, or leaned back, with the suavity of spies and the smell of beer and spirits. I was warm from the smoke rising from my own glass. Wandering between the bars, the staircases, was a compulsion; for the half-seen sights in the shadows were fascinating to pass between, and tired as my feet the darkness had not lifted to show an empty seat. I sipped, and forgot what words I had spoken to whom, and drifted.

His head tilted towards a sconce so that I could see both eyes fixed on me, and that was where I stopped, a few moments delayed before it sank in. I sipped and looked at him through the omnipresent railings, the wood rich in the dimness. I knew him and did not know him, the way one knew a face from television or from the hallway near the ladies’ washroom.

With a nod that was of the eyes than of the head, or shoulders, he showed me the place I could not see, the unoccupied shadows at his side. I left the staircase, and it was like leaving a friend with whom you had gone a long way, yet without growing to really know them. The yearning for whatever they really were was still there.

I smiled at him, already at his table, and he did not look at me, not properly. A glance before I sat, the leather impossibly warm beneath me.

There were two other men at the table, and all three were talking, collars open and ties loose. But without making out the words I could taste the way they wrapped up their banter, so that the two across from us slowly turned to each other, and the one who had stared at me, his dark head and dark eyes familiar in a pale, rectangular face, both did and did not turn my way.

In the closeness of the booth our legs touched from hip to calf. And I asked him a question or two, ones that did not matter. A void ensued in which all I could smell was my glass, and then, like stars pricking through a night sky, the disappearance of the two men across from us woke me.

The man beside me closed in and I spent delicious long minutes in a cocoon, with him above and the warm, warm leather below.

When his mouth and hands and weight broke away, abruptly, I felt the obscene gap between my lips. He was out of the booth somehow, past me, back to me, speaking with several indistinct figure, casually looking back over his shoulder. There was laughter. Together, they floated away.

To be disaffected was to be enveloped in the pounding music. Disappointment, humiliation, rage – they flowed out in sparks, whiskey drowning the sconce.

At my desk tomorrow I would have forgotten.

Somewhere past Cornwall

“Send her to the whippershpon”

Said the cat beneath the peas

Batting white and purple blossoms

Jupiter passing on the breeze

“We don’t need her kind here –

Yarn-cutters and bird-lovers tall –

If Gravity were not fallible

She would not have birthed them all”

Held between the bulldogs

An abundance of meows

Were all that fell from my lips

And I was led off by the snout

Her Ninth Letter to Kate


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Dear Kate,

I saw the most extraordinary thing, my last day on the train! And Mr. Faulken, the District Officer for Denver, was with me, so I was treated to a satisfying discussion rather than simply going starry eyed, and wondering about it by myself.

We were at one end of the dining car with the window open, as Mr. Faulken enjoys a smoke (yes, oh yes, I do agree it is a disgusting habit), and I saw movement out on the plains of West Dempshire. The land undulates in this part of the country, not quite flat and not quite hilly, but a pleasing expanse of dips and rises that would be well-suited to agriculture, were the soil not rather poor. I saw this movement, and at first I could not say what it was. My eyes would not accept it. But after a few moments I discerned the great block of clay – not a rock, but reddish, packed earth sprouting prairie grasses – the size of a man, and regular as two cubes stuck together, sliding uphill.

I am afraid I pointed, and was largely inarticulate, but Mr. Faulken comprehended.

His discourse then on quarky ions, and the love of clay for high places, transported me from my undergraduate physics seminars to armchair philosophy and back again, whilst I watched the clay block, with its grasses swaying like untamed hair, reach a small summit, quiver, and seemingly disappear into thin air.

I had a number of questions for him then, largely around the theory that clay enjoyed high places – if so, then why did it disappear from just one such spot? Mr. Faulken scratched his ear and said that maybe this particular piece of wandering clay had been more sentient than most spotted in West Dempshire, and perhaps it knew that one cannot always have what one wants for long.

What a very yellow-bellied piece of clay that would be, in my opinion. It didn’t try to keep to its summit for more than two seconds altogether.

Anyway, I bid goodbye to Mr. Faulken after supper, for we have crossed the New Cambridge border; later tonight we shall arrive in Kingstowne, and I will disembark. Rather embarrassingly, it seems the gentleman noticed my green-eyed glances at his wristwatch-compass over the course of our short acquaintance, and upon parting he gave me the directions for the workshop on the east coast which makes them. He cautioned me that they are terribly expensive – but never mentioned the magnitude of the price. And I have no head for their New British pounds yet at any rate. All I could do was thank him effusively.

I will no doubt write to you soon with news of what Kingstowne is like.



P.S. Thank you for visiting my papa – you make it sound as though he were no too shocked at my sudden departure, and I shall endeavour to believe this to be true.

Her Eighth Letter to Kate

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ArtStation - Steampunk Western Town, Christy Tortland
From ArtStation

Dear Kate,

It is my second day on the train and so much has happened. I hope that you continue blissfully well, that Everett is equally well (but not any more so than you), and that my uncle’s birthday has passed happily. Please give him my best wishes. On that note, have you spoken with my father at all? I am sad to have left England without hearing from him, and I am impatient to arrive in Kingstowne and to have any letters forwarded to me.

The first thing I noticed when I set foot on this new continent was that even the way buildings and streets were laid out gave an impression of an abundance of space, and that the attire of its folk gave an impression of boundless fashions. When I saw a woman in pants I realized – I can wear anything that I want here, and people will hardly look twice.

Neither did they look twice at the murmuring cats who crossed my path, or the funny cloud that was hanging low over a house of questionable reputation. It was pink as cotton candy. So you see my first anomalies have been benign, even if one cat did send me a withering look, and the only noticeable change in the physics is how easily a hop can become a jump. I was emboldened by the surrounding strangeness when I slipped into my first New British shop; however, I do not for one moment regret my purchases.

For I will be engaged in many rough and tumble things. I was remiss in explaining exactly how I will be employed, my vagueness partly out of habit from concealing gruesome details from Irene and my mother. I will ride about on survey, watching for landslides and fissures, approving (or disapproving) any new buildings or industry as per the Kingstowne Charter and basic prudence, planning for the future stability of the area, and helping to bring any remarkable students to the government’s notice. Thankfully I shall have a staff to help me in doing all of this, though I don’t know of how many and of what quality. The District Official is supposed to be someone “of irreproachable education and manners”, but I have no notion of the exigencies for an Official’s employees.

Anyway, after the talking cats and some reflection, I didn’t think skirts were right for the job. Besides, we wore much what your brothers did when caught toads and played dolls all in the same afternoons.

Yes, I bought pants. Pants! Don’t tell anyone, for fear of it getting back to Irene, as she will be sure to tell my mother, and I couldn’t bear all the discombobulation that would follow at my posterior being outlined for the public’s view. To be honest, I am rather proud of my posterior. Up top, Alexandra has always made me feel very small – maybe that is why Edward danced with her.

No, nothing about him. To go on, I also bought some plain but sweet linen shirts (I plan to embroider the cuffs), ones heavy enough to conceal my underthings, and the most magnificent leather trench to ward off the dust. The man in the shop got all strained and funny-looking when I said I wanted it. It makes me look like a pirate, Kate! I actually have to try not to swagger when I wear it.

I’m going to dinner now, and shall write more after.

Hah, I fancy a few people did look askance when I came into the dining car but I don’t care, I tell you! I am a stranger here. The Conductor had described another District Official to me, and I found the man (who is from Denver) by his cow boy hat and his large boots. He also wore a gleaming, ticking device upon his wrist. I wonder that the Conductor did not distinguish him by the device rather than all else together. Mayhap she didn’t know what to call it. He sat alone so I went up very boldly, and inclined my head, and said I hoped he would pardon me but I was on my way to be a new Official, and I should like to eat with him if it wouldn’t be a disturbance.

“A new one, eh? And a young lady at that, by jove. Good choice of coat. Sit down, sit down.” He had a very craggy face, and it got more jumbled as he smiled.

I was so pleased when he said that about the coat. And seeing how he was dressed, with weathered pants, a heavy vest, and great leather gloves set down by his plate, I was reassured in my own selections.

We talked about all manner of things. I told him that I was an MA in Geography, but that I had dabbled in many other subjects along the way, and when I said I was from the University of Bloomsbury he seemed rather impressed. He himself went to the University of New York for a BSc in Biology, specializing in mountain vegetation. He told me that he has been one of two Officials in Denver (it is a big place), for over twenty years. From him I heard all sorts of interesting and daunting stories about the work. He also saw my curiosity at his wrist device, and he explained it in detail; it is both a time-keeper and a compass, a marvel of gears and glass and little swivelling arrows. I covet it.

Kingstowne will be different from Denver in a thousand ways, but still I feel that I have a better idea of what I can look forward to. I shall only be on the train for one more day so I will try to talk to this District Official, Mr. Faulken, as much as I can before this leg of the journey is done.

Yours always,


P.S. How is the weather in England? How are the flowers blooming in York? Does Everett bring you bouquets? At a word from you, I will hogtie him if he doesn’t (I am sure I will learn how to hogtie).

With Althea

You were my song in summers past

Where the bracken thinned to white

Of Queen Anne’s lace over gorges fast

Against age and speech alike

The rocks fell into canyons whose

Every fingertip we could climb

Up to the nests of red hawks loosed

To heaven’s twilit design

Our paths were ever lighted by

Your head of strawberry gold

That brought us home through nights and winters

Through forests thick, and marshes cold

We have lost those vistas sweeping

Where sand and sun danced intricacies

Strange and fanciful as novels

Stranger still in memory

And your hair fades darker now

More of the earth than gold

Yet at times we do remember

And always the stories hold